Charlie Rudd on turnarounds: "Build a beacon, don't do surgery"

The group CEO of three advertising agencies tells MT his tips for turnaround success, from focusing on gangs and little wins, to why he never runs to a meeting.

by Kate Magee
Last Updated: 23 Nov 2023

“There are two things you should know about Charlie Rudd. The first is that it is impossible to find anyone who will say a bad word about him…The second is his nickname, Rudd Adair, a nod to the American oil well firefighter, Red Adair. Rudd has acquired the moniker for his ability to handle any situation, however tough, with a cool head.”

These were the opening words to Charlie Rudd’s 2015 profile in Campaign, published as he began his first CEO role, at creative advertising agency Ogilvy. After 17 years at the legendary creative agency Bartle Bogle Hegarty (of Levi’s, Audi and Johnnie Walker fame), where he held a range of high-profile roles including chief operating officer, it was his turn to step into the spotlight.

Eight years later, it’s still seemingly impossible to find anyone to say a bad word about Rudd and he’s shown impressive leadership prowess. His stint at the WPP-owned Ogilvy was promising - building momentum, winning some highly-contested client business from British Airways, Boots and Vodafone, and an improved creative product. His reign was cut short, however, after a global restructure was imposed, with which he disagreed. After staying to help install it, he chose to leave.

Rudd was then asked to run another heritage agency Leo Burnett UK (owned by a rival global marcoms group Publicis Groupe). Two weeks after he joined, industry title Campaign (Management Today’s sister brand) slammed it for underperformance. Four years later, and despite a pandemic to navigate, the agency was crowned Campaign’s creative agency of the year - a highly coveted accolade.

His reward is an expanded global CEO role, taking on another underperforming agency in the Publicis Groupe - Publicis.Poke - where it is hoped he can sprinkle his magic again.

Importantly, he’s a great example that you don’t need to be an egomaniac, aggressive, horrible boss to get results.

In Management Today’s latest Leadership Lessons episode, Rudd opens up about his leadership style, his turnaround playbook and why self-belief is critical to his success. Here are his tips for success.

Build a beacon: “It’s a more positive way to live”

A successful turnaround requires clarity - both in assessing the problems in the existing business and in setting the future direction. When Rudd joins a business, he is focused on two things: understanding the culture and finding the business’ strengths.

To do this, he spends as much time as possible with different people and the clients. “That gives you a very clear sense of what to build on. I might look at the numbers, but I’m not that fussed - I’ve got a finance partner to look after that,” he says.

Interestingly, he doesn’t look for things to fix, he looks for what the business is already doing well and amplifies that.

For example, Leo Burnett has an unusually long-standing partnership with McDonalds, which Rudd thinks is “probably the best case history of a brand understanding the British audience and its role within UK culture and society.”

He has always admired this partnership and thought it was something the agency should build on. “Rather simplistically, that’s where our success has come from - recognising what we do really well for McDonald’s and then doing that for other clients,” he says.

This approach was something he learned at Ogilvy, whose sheer size and global nature (it is part of a large multinational network) could make it “amorphous”, and hard to build a culture, says Rudd.

“We focused on building a beacon,” he says - a project within a business that showcases the approach you want to take. Not only does this attract talented people to work on the project, but it gives weaker parts of the business something to emulate.

“Building a beacon, rather than thinking you need to do surgery to certain parts of the business, is a much more positive way to approach your life. Look for the good stuff,” he says.

Create a gang: “A CEO is a talent manager”

Advertising is an industry that is disproportionately about people (the eponymous agency founder David Ogilvy is reported to have once quipped: “All of our assets go down the elevator at 5 o’ clock). Rudd doesn't forget this.

“The way you make agencies successful is through a really strong leadership team. The team should have lots of diversity at its heart but be utterly united in terms of what the business is about, the way we’re going to do it, what matters to us and what doesn’t,” he says. He rejects the idea of a lone creative genius driving agency success. “The quality of the team is what delivers.”

So much so, he says: “I often think my job as CEO is really that of a talent manager. The most important thing I need to do is build the agency brand and business so it’s most attractive to everybody in our industry. Then I get to choose the best ones and get them to join us,” he says.

Once he has a strong team, his focus then shifts to making sure the daily experience at the agency is as good as it can be so they don’t want to go elsewhere. “CEOs should remind themselves that good people are making an active choice to open those office doors every day. It's my job to make sure they keep doing that. That’s it really, that’s all I need to do. Because if we have the best people, we will continue to do our best work for clients and hopefully they will stay with us.”

Focus on small wins: “Just make it better”

Rudd is not daunted by a turnaround because he breaks the challenge down into small actions. “I never really think about failure. It never crosses my mind,’ he says. “At the start of the journey, I don’t think ‘how are we going to make it the best agency in town?’ I’m not worried about that right now, I just need to make it better.”

He focuses on regular incremental wins instead of big shiny awards or ego-boosting large account wins. He celebrates small successes like, hiring a person that will make a big difference to the agency, or being able to retain someone who was planning to leave, or improving the quality of work for a client.

“I can feel all those wins along the way. Almost every day in the office, you can feel the little wins building. They add up to proper momentum in an agency,” he says.

Remember you are watched: “Never run to a meeting”

Rudd held many senior roles in agencies before he took the CEO role. His biggest surprise in the top role was that “there is a degree of loneliness”. Although he is firmly a team-player, he admits the CEO role requires an additional level of discretion: “The CEO has that ultimate responsibility, which means there are certain things you need to keep to yourself. When you’re the CEO, you’re conscious that sometimes you can’t disclose what you are thinking until the right moment.”

While he says all senior executives have a responsibility to set the tone for meetings and the people around them, this is heightened for CEOs: “People are reading you the whole time - what you’re saying, how you’re reacting, how you’re behaving. They are almost over-reading every raised eyebrow, so you have to be careful with how you act - although not to the extent you are being false.”

Indeed, one of the senior management mantras at his formative agency (BBH) was to never run anywhere in the office because it panics people. “If you’re late for a meeting, you don’t run. No-one knows you are only running because you are late for a meeting,” he says.

Have self-belief: “I back myself”

Another secret weapon for Rudd is his level-headed attitude to pressure. He actively seeks out challenge, for example, choosing to join Ogilvy to test himself in a new environment without the “latent goodwill” that had built up at BBH. “I am extremely competitive, although I hope I wear that quite lightly, and I want the business I’m working in to perform brilliantly,” he says.

What he finds satisfying is having a tangible impact on a business. “I’ve never found it anywhere near as rewarding just maintaining something. I like fixing things.”

To deal with the pressure of the top job, Rudd says, “my commute is weirdly important to me as a buffer to the beginning and end of my day. Sometimes it’s the best part of my day, which sounds a bit sad, but because I’m on my own, I can think. Creating my own space is an important way of dealing with the pressure.”

He also believes experience helps you to take a detached view of difficult situations. “We’ve all been through tough times at work and you know you’ve come through those. It doesn’t necessarily make it easy, but I have that inherent sense that I’ve probably been through worse than this. So I back myself. As long as I have moments so I can keep thinking clearly, I believe I’ll get to good solutions.”

Ultimately, as he says: "|t's business. Tough stuff happens, things go wrong. It's not the end of the world, you just have to respond."